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This holiday occurs on December 13th, where young women dress up and sing. One usually has candles on their head while the other holds candles. Lucia is said to be an Italian saint, and there are varying theories on how this tradition originated, but the tradition is not exclusively Swedish, as Finnish-Swedes, Norwegians, and a host of other people observe this tradition.
The Swedes also bake lussebullar in celebration of Lucia, which is a bread made from the expensive saffron spice. While some traditions may be fading with time and modernity, the creation of Lucia buns does not appear to be one of them.
We of course have a great lussebullar recipe so you can make your own at home!
The tortuous story behind the traditions
For reasons that soon will become obvious to you, most Swedes have only a vague idea about what all these traditions symbolize. According to a Sicilian legend, Lucia was a young woman in Syracuse, who was executed because she, of religious reasons, refused to fulfill her mother’s promise to marry the man her mother had selected.
In today’s Swedish Lucia procession, the girl with the candle wreath is of course Lucia herself. The bright red band around her waist is said to symbolize purity and chastity. The other girls in white robes are her bridesmaids. In a procession with children, the boys with conical hats are star boys, representing the three kings, who following the star came with gifts for the newly born Christ. A procession of children may also contain one or more boys (or girls) dressed in red; these are tomtenissar, i.e. the children of tomten; they are definitely in the wrong story, but… kids like it.
[Tomten is a gnome in Nordic mythology, in modern days often confused with Santa Claus (Saint Nicolaus, which is a totally different myth). Tomten is a benevolent being that lives in the ground beneath your house all year, protecting your house and your family from mishaps, provided that he is served a bowl of rice pudding outside your door on Christmas Night. A modern addition to the myth is that he brings presents for the children on Christmas.]
Celebrations on the exact date of December 13 have occurred at least since the 16th century. This date used to be the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar 1753 moved the solstice more than a week further, but celebrations stayed on the same date as before. However, the longest night, when the year turns, is known to have been celebrated since heathen times in most European countries. It was believed that this night was ruled by all kinds of dangerous powers and demons, why you should stay awake in your house all night. A very early breakfast was eaten in bed, and the maids and skivvies of the house may also have provided other pleasures, serving in the dark.
With the arrival of Christianity, this dissolute tradition had to change. But you cannot remove a tradition just like that, you have to replace it with something else. In the Roman Catholic calendar, December 13 is the day of Saint Lucia from Syracuse in Sicily, known for her chastity (!), and consequently the 13th century clergy promoted a celebration of her. It was a success only by the name change; the traditional celebrations seem to have continued for centuries. Anyway, it’s interesting to notice that Lucia is celebrated only locally in Sicily and in the Scandinavian countries.
However, late 18th century writings from upper class homes in the counties around Lake Vänern (Värmland, Västergötland, and Dalsland) report a new element in the celebrations: white gowns, candles, hymns and chorals. The crown, i.e. the wreath with the candles, made its debut in the early 19th century. The new way of celebrating Saint Lucia slowly spread over the country into the homes of common people, further into the east of Norway, western Finland, and finally to places in the US with Swedish descendants.
Lucia celebrations were mostly a “family affair” carried out at home until 1927, when a leading newspaper in Stockholm arranged a public Lucia procession, with a Lucia voted by the paper’s readers. Local newspapers followed, and every town and village would get it’s own Lucia, voted by the paper’s readers.
The Lucia hymn is an old song from Naples, Italy, with new and entirely different Swedish lyrics written in 1924. The ballad of Saint Stephen, who was beheaded by king Herod in Jerusalem, is much older, but why it is performed at Lucia is not clear.